Interview with Kelly Luce and Russell Podgorsek

by Sacha Idell

  Photo by Justin N. Lane

Two of Swords Counterpoint” is unusual in that it is accompanied by a musical arrangement. Could you talk a bit about how this project came to be?

Kelly Luce: Russell Podgorsek, the composer, and I met in Austin a couple years ago when he wrote a piece of music to accompany a flash fiction piece of mine for NANO Fiction's Sehr Flash issue. A string quartet performed the music and the writers read their stories at the Texas Book Festival Lit Crawl. I'm a big music person, and it was just an incredibly cool experience, hearing the emotion of the story translated that way. 

Russell and I stayed in touch and decided to collaborate again. I'd had the idea for a story about a woman unearthing an unlikely piece of music—a concerto for viola—for a while, but didn't know where to go with it. Russell encouraged me to get dramatic, which helped me loosen up and play around. I have a tendency to be too subtle in early drafts.  

I’d had the idea for a story about a woman unearthing an unlikely piece of music—a concerto for viola—for a while, but didn’t know where to go with it.

I love how much this story articulates in its juxtapositions—the somewhat disjointed structure, alternating between italics and regular text, allows the reader to come up with a lot of unusual connections and images. How did you hit upon this format?

KL: I wanted the voices of the narrator and the anonymous composer to be distinct, but also intertwined, like a call-and-response through time and space. The italicized lines are meant to be the marginalia the narrator discovers on the musical score. So from a story standpoint, the narrator is physically encountering this other person's words. But at the same time, the way they alternate on the page felt important in terms of rhythm and creating space for the reader's imagination to get a foothold. Some of the italicized lines are from a poem I wrote years ago about a doomed love.

I wanted the voices of the narrator and the anonymous composer to be distinct, but also intertwined, like a call-and-response through time and space.

What was it that drew you to use a tarot card in this story?  

KL: Tarot cards, like horoscopes, are interesting not because they know the future, but because, if we allow ourselves the possibility of magic, they're often vessels for our unconscious to come to terms with things we don't want to face. The narrator is in an abusive relationship that's difficult to leave. Deep down, she knows what she needs to do, but she's stuck in the cycle. She can't help but see herself in the tarot card. It speaks to her—a turn you can read either literally or figuratively.

A quality I’ve enjoyed a lot in your writing about Japan is how naturally Japanese it sounds. While reading “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” for example, I was struck by how much the prose reminded me of the syntax of some of my favorite Japanese writers. Are you doing anything in particular to manage this effect?  

KL: I'm curious which writers you were reminded of, and what you mean by "naturally Japanese!" No, that isn't purposeful. I'm drawn to Japanese aesthetic philosophy for sure, and read a lot of Japanese writers. The writing I enjoy most isn't about fancy language; it's about distilling and focusing on the tiny unique moments that break the heart. I feel like I get that from a lot of Japanese writers—at least the small percentage whose work is translated into English.

The writing I enjoy most isn’t about fancy language; it’s about distilling and focusing on the tiny unique moments that break the heart.

What have you been reading lately? Anything that you think the readers of “Two of Swords Counterpoint” would enjoy?

KL: I'm re-reading Grace Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute and slowly making my way through Jane Smiley's brilliant 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. Honestly, you could skip your B.A. in English and your MFA and just read Smiley's book instead. It's really stunning and insightful. 


RUSSELL PODGORSEK ON COMPOSING FOR FICTION

What are some of your priorities when composing for a short story? Are there particular qualities you're looking to emphasize over others? 

[M]y path was set out for me: write a short tune that a mother could sing to a child and use some special effects to make the music sound muffled at one point and clear later on.

Russell Podgorsek: The first thing to consider for me is trying to capture the tone of the story. After that I turn my attention to making the musical work successful in its own right. Sometimes I can draw certain elements from the story and represent them in the music, but other times it's best to let the music unfold in its own way (once the tone is established).

What is your composition process like, and does it change when attached to a narrative, as opposed to composing in a blank space?

RP: The blank space is hard for everyone, in every discipline, I think. Having a well-crafted, evocative story to draw inspiration from makes the first stages relatively easy. For example, the first of Kelly's stories that I wrote music for, “Outside,” mentioned a "Bohemian lullaby" remembered by the character both in utero and later in the outside world, and so my path was set out for me: write a short tune that a mother could sing to a child and use some special effects to make the music sound muffled at one point and clear later on.

Both literature and music are narrative forms that reveal themselves over time.

What do you see as the main connections between music and writing? 

RP: Both literature and music are narrative forms that reveal themselves over time. Of course, music is a far less articulate language than any written or spoken one, so the "storytelling" in music has to be rudimentary. A beginning needs to sound like a beginning, transitional passages need to feel unstable, and so on.


KELLY LUCE is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail and a novel, Pull Me Under. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, the Chicago TribuneThe Oprah Magazine, and other publications. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and a 2016-17 fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

RUSSELL PODGORSEK is a composer, violist, and electric guitarist. His recent awards and commissions include a NewMusicUSA Project Grant for a collaboration with NANOFiction and the Cordova Quartet, Six Memos for the Next Millennium for the Bel Cuore Saxophone Quartet, Songs for the Sane 3.0 and Reversal of Fortune for the Life/Art Dance Ensemble (CO), MicroSymphony for the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra (MD), and Lament and Lullaby for the Sudbury Youth Orchestra (Ontario, Canada). His work Annachronism for solo violin was featured on the 2014 i care if you listen Summer Mixtape. He was also featured as composer-in-residence at the Simsbury Chamber Music Festival (CT) in 2008. He currently serves as Lecturer and Building Coordinator at the University of Texas where he earned his DMA studying with Donald Grantham, Dan Welcher, and Russell Pinkston. He is a graduate of both the Hartt School of Music (CT) and the University of Dayton (OH). 

SACHA IDELL is fiction editor of The Arkansas International. His stories appear in the Chicago Tribune, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, and elsewhere, while his published translations include work by the Japanese novelist Kyūsaku Yumeno. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.